Friday, December 23, 2011

I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why is the Town council paying for CCTV?

I don't understand why the Town Council feels it should contribute to the District Council owned CCTV system. The first item was to find out is where the CCTV cameras in St Neots are located. HDC provided me with the following information.

1. A map:
2. There locations:
Most of these are public spaces. The yellow ones are covering District owned car parks. One covers the skateboard park on the District owned Riverside Park.

Only one of these 13 CCTV cameras covers Town Council land and that is Shady Walk. So why are we paying for these cameras? Basically because the owners (HDC) is running out of money and rather than close the system they get there Town Council to pay up half the costs for St Neots.

There is a case for doing this. The Town Council wants the CCTV system to continue. It helps the keep the Town Centre secure plus catch criminals and anti-social behaviour.

The arguments against the Town Council paying for CCTV are also numerous:

1. These CCTV concentrate only on the Town Centre. So the people of Eynesbury, Eaton Socon and many other parts of St Neots are paying for a service which doesn't cover them.

2. St Neots Town Centre is used by many residents from outside St Neots for shopping and services. Yet these don't pay for this service via their Town/Parish Councils. Only via HDC Council Tax which St Neots residents also pay.

3. Quite a few of these CCTV cameras are on District Council land and cover District Council run Car Parks. The District Council derives an income from these car parks. The Town Council doesn't.

4. HDC owns these cameras and should pay for the whole cost rather than taxing the Council taxpayer via the Town Council.

Whilst I could dream up some more but those arguments will do.

These CCTV cameras are owned and run by HDC. They are there for all residents of HDC and not specific residents who use the Town Centre. They protect HDC assets and yet St Neots is being taxed by stealth to pay for these cameras.

I say as HDC owns these cameras and many of the locations they cover then HDC should pay for them and tax all residents for this privilege. Why should all St Neots Council taxpayers pay extra for these cameras? Only to keep the District Council tax down and the St Neots Council tax higher than it should be!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Does HDC believe the External Auditors are DAFT?

In an HDC report on the so far uncompleted annual accounts the following is said:
HDC says the Auditor's report is DAFT!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

HDC Accounts not now ready until the New Year!

The Corporate Governance Panel seems to have given up on agreeing the annual accounts which were due on 30th September 2011. In a recent report the CGP says:

The Panel was informed of efforts made by the Head of Financial Services’ staff and the Council’s external auditors to complete the process for finalising and publishing the Council’s accounts for 2010/11. Members are hopeful that the work will be finalised early in the New Year.

No date or extra meeting arranged.

In a previous blog I set out an explanation sent to me by Steve Couper of HDC. In it he said:

.... and the current intention is to submit them to the next programmed meeting of the Panel on the 7 December.

Even this date has been missed.

What has been dropped is any target date. Just "early in the New Year". Whatever that really means.

The law is very clear:

(3) Subject to paragraph (4), a larger relevant body must, no later than 30th September in the year immediately following the end of the year to which the statement relates—

(a)consider either by way of a committee or by the members meeting as a whole the statement of accounts;

(b)following that consideration, approve the statement of accounts by a resolution of that committee or meeting;

(c)following approval, ensure that the statement of accounts is signed and dated by the person presiding at the committee or meeting at which that approval was given; and

(d)publish (which must include publication on the body’s website), the statement of accounts together with any certificate, opinion, or report issued, given or made by the auditor under section 9 (general report) of the 1998 Act.

(4) The responsible financial officer must re-certify the presentation of the statement of accounts before the relevant body approves it.

To me this is straight forward. The Corporate Governance Panel cannot delegate these powers away to Council Officers. Yet that is what it seems to have done. HDC does like Breaking the Law. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

HDC Planning decides for the cinema!

The reason why I'm interested in this application has to do with the District and Town Councils owning the land on which this cinema complex is to be built. I'm not normally interested in general planing applications but follow those for publicly owned land. I also look at the Useless Planning Committee of the Town Council to show how useless it really is.

The Cinema is due up for decision on 19th December 2011. The 20MB planning report is here. The original Development Brief is here.

Reading the planning report I was first struck by one paragraph.
The proposals certainly differ from the Development Brief. The access from Huntingdon Street was supposed to be a minor entrance with the main entrance from Lidl Car Park.

Access from Huntingdon Street.
This is what the Development Brief says:
What is shown is this is a minor access and not the only access. This was to be the service access.
The much bigger arrow shows the main access will be from via the Lidl car park.

The "broad principle" here is the main entrance is from the Lidl car park. I cannot see how having sole vehicular entrance from Huntingdon Street is a "broad principle". The "broad principle" in this context is for a two entrance car park. If the car park entrance had been moved to round the back of Lidl then, I feel, this "broad principle" would be acceptable. No second entrance then the use of the term "broad principle" is very wide indeed. I believe this is totally meaningless.

The provision of a larger scale building (neighbour amenity)

The size of the building is also important. I have never seen how a 7 screen cinema as originally envisaged could fit into the area in the Development Brief.

This is a very strong double headed arrow which gives the impression that HDC Planning takes Neighbour Amenity seriously. Taking Neighbour Amenity into account this was the final drawing on the Development Brief.

Taking into account the Broad Principle of Neighbour Amenity, this means the potential larger scale building is  restricted in where it can go. This is clearly set out in the picture above. The Double headed arrows clearly set out the clearance needed to protect Neighbour Amenity.

The first sentence of paragraph 7.5 says: "The Development Brief makes it clear that it is intended to guide development with indicative concepts, rather than provide a prescribed layout."

That statement I can agree with. It is here to give guidance to the developer and land owners (District and Town Councils) on what the site can be used for. The double headed arrow for "protecting neighbour amenity" as the Planners inform the public has been shot to pieces. Even in broad terms the principle of "protecting neighbour amenity" has been trashed
The cinema is much larger than the "potential larger scale building here" as indicated in the picture above. 

Whether or not the development is within the "broad principles" is open to debate. Protecting Neighbour Amenity has been trashed. Protecting Green Open Spaces has also been trashed. HDC, along with the Town Council are owners of this land. If Development Briefs are to mean anything then they must be adhered to by the owners - both Councils - who should tell the developers to adhere to the Development Brief or they won't sell or lease the land.

The planning department and HDC shouldn't get away with their "broad principles" argument. This is being used selectively to cover up the obvious real differences between the Development Plan and the Planning Application. In the drive to get a cinema, at any cost, HDC has gone to the public with a consultation which maps out a scenario. Then, in secret, it has trashed its own Development Plan. As the larger building is larger than the boundaries drawn then HDC should have gone back to the public with an amended Development Plan. That would have been democratic and inclusive. Instead the public has been kept in the dark.

The "Broad Principles" mean:

Important Building Frontage has gone.
A much larger building than mapped out.
More "Open Green Space" taken than the Conservatives "We will protect Open Green Spaces" envisaged.
Neighbour Amenity, as mapped out, trashed.
Lidl car park entrance not being used.

The message from HDC is loud and clear. In Planning terms HDC can do what it likes with its land. The people are of no real concern. St Neots must have a cinema has been the cry. Right from the start I have blogged that a cinema wouldn't fit into the area outlined. Right from the start I have said HDC will have to trash the Development Brief to get this cinema through. HDC owns the land where the cinema is going. Whether as owner or planning authority should have done the decent thing and be honest with the local residents over what is coming. Instead HDC hides behind "broad principles".

In the end this devalues anything said by HDC over Planning. Any "Development Brief" is really not worth the consultation and time wasted in producing this document. Why waste time and effort on "development briefs" when HDc can simply ignore them anyway.

Monday, December 12, 2011

St Neots pays "Stealth Taxes"

The Town council budget for 2012/13 brought one point to the fore. That is the amount of money the Town Council is now contributing because of HDC cuts. Lets remember that by ending a service and getting the Town Council to pick up the cost doesn't mean those costs go away for the Council taxpayer. Just they are charged by a different Council. In this case it is the Town Council.

In the 2012/13 budget the cost of HDC cuts are adding to the budget. The 2 public conveniences are costing £34,000. CCTV cameras (Town Council paying half the costs) £22,750. The Town Centre Initiative is costing an extra £10,000. This adds up to £66,750 or £6.17 per Band D Council taxpayer.

I feel I can argue that as SNTC has made provision to operate the toilets at South Street, the £15,000 allocated to run and maintain this facility should also be added to this list. This would make £81,750 a year that SNTC is paying for services formally run by HDC. This is essentially a Conservative Stealth Tax on the St Neots Council Taxpayer of £7.55 per Band D Council taxpayer.

It can be argued the Town Council has taken over these services. Yet when HDC made some of these cuts it was boasting at keeping their rise to 2.5%. In truth the Town Council is taxing us to provide these services. If these services weren't to be run by the Town Council but by the HDC this would save the Band D council taxpayer £7.55 a year.

The problems HDC face has been with them for coming up for a decade. Now, under the cover of coalition cuts, HDC is cutting.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

HDC hates the notion of a referendum

In an act of mutual self interest HDC group leaders have put forward a motion to the next Council Meeting on 14th December 2011. This calls for low tax rate councils to be allowed higher increases and high taxing councils to be restricted to lower increases. For information the Government has set the ceiling for Council Tax increases at 3.5%. If greater then a referendum is needed.

But this motion is wrong. The Coalition Government has ended capping and allowing each Council to decide the rate of Council Tax itself with a referenda for the electorates. If HDC feels it has a good case to increase their portion of the Council Tax then HDC should put this to the public by way of a referendum.

Instead HDC group leaders, by putting this motion forward, are trying to wriggle out of a referendum by allowing higher increases for low taxing authorities. This is wrong. All authorities should be looking to communicate with there residents over what the Council wants to spend and the tax rate to achieve that spending. If the residents don't want to be taxed so highly then service cuts will happen.

In Cllr Abelwhite's letter to the DCLG he states:

There is an argument that referendums may penalise low taxing and low spending authorities for
previous good financial performance. With referendums and re-billing having significant costs, the
benefits of holding referendums are more attractive for authorities with higher Council Tax as the
percentage increase would generate greater receipts for them and make it easier for them to fund
the additional costs.

But HDC isn't a low taxing/low spending authority. It has for a long time been a low tax/high spend council which spent reserves to prop up the failing budget. It is not for HDC to compare with other District Councils tax levels. It is for HDC to decide its spending levels and tax accordingly.

In Cllr Downes email he states the following:
A 3% increase in Council Tax would net £292,800 in extra tax. The current estimate is £100,000 for carrying out a referendum. But that is a one-off and could be used from reserves to pay for this. But that is the question. Do the HDC political parties actually want to give the residents the right to vote over excessive increases or carry on the same? The answer seems to be carry on the same.

A referendum would give a big headache to the political parties as they would have to campaign for an increase. The likelihood of getting enough people out to campaign for an increase is minimal. Likely there would be a revolt in there own ranks to any increase.

I hope Eric Pickles stays the course and dismisses this way round the rules. What is the point of giving this power to the people when those in charge just want to get around the rules.

Excessive Council Tax rises must mean a referendum. In my view the 3.5% level is itself excessive and should be 2.5% or less. If HDC wants to increase the tax it should go for a big rise and the political parties should campaign for an increase. If they don't want to campaign for an increase then they should cut services and cost accordingly.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

A message from a reader

I received the following comment via the private messaging facility on the St Neots Community Forums. As such the sender shall remain anonymous. It looks as though it is written by a Town Councillor but I cannot be sure.

I notice in your blog you make much of HDC changing its tune over the South Street toilets. Have you ever considered asking some questions rather than jumping to conclusions. snrednek say: Yes I ask questions all the time. Answers there are few. SNTC have managed to convince HDC to let us reopen and run these toilets because its good for the town to do so. Unlike the old council we dont go public in bitching about HDC, we work in a mature manner to do the right things for the town, and make a good case for things to happen. It would be nice if you could follow this story of yours up with "SNTC do something good for the town, at no extra cost to the tax payer".

Hmm....No extra cost to the Council Taxpayer! That sounds good. But whilst the Council Taxpayers aren't paying any more they could be paying less. And the £55,000 allocated contains within £15,000 for the first year running costs which aren't accounted for in future budgets.

snrednek says: Where I find any Council doing a good job I say so. Each Council has its own website. The Conservatives have their own website. The St Neots Conservatives had their own website and now its gone. The Councils and Political Parties get there views over in the two local newspapers without too many awkward questions. Political Parties can put out leaflets, but rarely do so, during the year. I try and ask the awkward questions. When HDC closed the South Street Toilets one of the reasons given was they were inappropriate for the conservation area. Now they are to be re-opened this means the inappropriate reason was a lie.

In the end these are my views on issues affecting St Neots. If you wish to promote differing views, free resources are out there for you to do so.

Monday, December 5, 2011

What the Coalition Agreement says on Council Tax freezes

The Coalition Agreement says:

We will freeze Council Tax in England for at least one year, and seek to freeze it for a further year, in partnership with local authorities.

So all authorities have the same information. So it shouldn't have come as a surprise, as it seems to have done, that the Coalition has announced money for a second year of funding for a freeze. Yet this seems to be the case.

On the other hand how has DCLG worked in partnership to ensure this freeze can go ahead? I cannot find evidence to back up any notion of partnership.

Lets get back to the Councils. The Town Council isn't in receipt of Government grants so is unaffected by the grants cuts. HDC finances are in such bad shape that they need the Council Tax rise to maintain a semblance of providing services.

HDC was happy to throw £millions at keeping services going. These reserves are running out. HDC has still to decide whether it is a it is a low tax/low spending authority or not. The rhetoric seems to be HDC wants a higher Council Tax rate, but is trying to find ways around the referendum needed to increase their portion of the Council Tax. Yet if services are to be maintained there needs to be a substantial Council Tax rise.

CCC has yet to decide whether they

The District Councillors need to get it into their heads there needs to be cuts.

HDC still racing to get its accounts approved

The accounts must be approved by 30th September of each year. This year HDC has missed the deadline and has done so by a wide margin. The accounts and annexes are down as "To Follow".

In the report from the Auditors to the Council the following is said about the delay:

We therefore propose to include a report be exception following our vfm conclusion for 2010/11 to confirm that we have identified significant weaknesses in the Council’s arrangements for ensuring reliable and timely financial reporting that meets the needs of internal users, stakeholders and local people, as a result of the delay.

The report goes into detail:

However, the authority was not able to provide us with a comprehensive set of supporting working papers at the start of our audit. There are a number of reasons for this including:
  • The Council’s capital accountant was absent on the grounds of ill health, and other finance staff had difficulty interpreting and understanding elements of capital accounting and capital financing information. 
  • The Council underestimated the level of resource required to do the IFRS restatements and produce the 2010/11 financial statements and the restated 2009/10 and 2008/09 information. 
  • As new auditors it was always expected that we would not have the same degree of knowledge of the specific circumstances of the Council as an incumbent, however, the Council underestimated the number of questions and supporting information that we would require to support the accounts. 
This has had a knock on effect of our audit, resulting in working papers that did not agree to the accounts and significant gaps in the information provided to us, predominately in relation to capital accounting.
During the audit the finance team has on occasion, struggled to provide sufficient relevant and reliable information to us in respect of the Council’s leases, capital accounting and other elements of the accounts.

Yet the Capital accountant was one of those being made redundant!

The report still goes on:

As of 28 November 2011 we are still waiting on information from the Council to enable us to complete our audit. We will provide a full verbal update to the Panel when we meet with you on 7 December 2011.

An interesting bit:

Leisure Centres

Our review of leases identified that the five leisure centres included on the Council’s balance sheet are held under management agreements. These agreements indicate that the assets are jointly controlled assets between the Council and Cambridgeshire County Council. The Council has prepared an assessment of the proportion of the assets attributable to the County Council based on capital investment in the assets since they were built. At the date of writing this report management were still in the process of making the necessary adjustments to the financial statements.

Initial calculations expect this to impact the cost of the assets on the balance sheet by decreasing their value by approximately £1.5 million - £2 million (£19.8 million total assets).

From the Auditors report I can surmise HDC were unprepared for the new IFRS accounting standards. Even though the Capital Accountant was ill and was subsequently made redundant this was a problem that HDC management should have managed. If there are not the right people to do the job then find someone who can. It is not as though the auditors just turned up unexpectedly. In the report the auditors state:

Following discussions with management following our appointment as external auditors we performed early audit work in February and March 2011 on the restatement of the prior year comparative information. At that time the evidence available to support the Council’s work to date on the IFRS conversion was not sufficient to enable us to carry out detailed audit procedures. We provided an assessment focussing on the key areas of the conversion and discussed this with Management in April 2011 who continued to work on the transition process.

So the Council's Management knew back in April 2011 there was trouble, though had an idea in February/March 2011. Yet as far as I can see the Management did little to resolve this situation so the accounts could be presented by the deadline of 30th September 2011.